c1300 – c2000
Works by Binchois, Byrd, Dufay, Glass, Machaut, Mozart, Ockeghem, Purcell et al
Jeremy Denk (piano)
Nonesuch 7559793471 93:29 mins (2 discs)
Garlanded with awards including a MacArthur ‘Genius’ fellowship, Jeremy Denk is a fine pianist and fluent essayist, and this compilation allows him free rein in both guises. It arose out of an invitation from the Lincoln Center to come up with an unusual recital programme, ‘something like a happening or an installation’ as he puts it. The invitation chimed with the way his thinking had been going. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, he thought, if he could convey the history of ‘so-called classical music’ in its whole sweep in just one sitting? ‘To get the perspective of time, to hear sounds and their priorities shifting.’
His choice of pieces aimed for a mixture of light and dark, optimism and pessimism, and was designed to provide a compelling narrative, he says in his liner note. Many of the early works were written to be sung, so he has transcribed them. So here we are. Guillaume de Machaut, Binchois, Ockeghem, Dufay, Josquin, Byrd, Gesualdo, Monteverdi, and Purcell lead on to Scarlatti, JS Bach, and then to movements from Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, before sampling the Romantics, Wagner, Schoenberg, Debussy, and Ligeti, then circling back to Binchois, in the same way as Bach’s Goldberg Variations return refreshed to their beginning. His own commentaries are intermittently illuminating, and some of the segues are surprisingly felicitous – I wouldn’t have thought that Schoenberg and Debussy could sit so cosily side by side – but it’s hard to avoid the feeling that this collage is only one of an infinity of collages which would have been equally enjoyable, and which any musician might have devised. Despite the excellence of the pianism, this has no intellectual grit in its agenda, and is essentially a personal project.